Protagoras, a renowned professional in the art of persuasion, has a practice at 37ème floor of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, which is adjacent to the Pierre and Central Park. His date - Plato - wants to consult him 'urgently' on a problem 'of the utmost importance'.
Plato gets out of the lift
But Plato is already coming out of the lift.
Protagoras's vast office faces the bay window; it is bathed, at the end of the day, in a shimmering orange glow that gives the vast work table a golden sheen. Protagoras lets his client choose whether to sit facing the sun or with his back to it; nervous people often get irritated by the low light. Plato seems agitated.
-Did you want to consult me?
Taking courage, Plato :
-The situation is becoming unbearable!
-Could you tell me more?
-Falsehood, Protagoras! The lie, the illusion, the fantasies, the denial of reality; the rejection of true reality, yet as blinding as this twilight sun! The lie spreads its sordid mantle everywhere; nothing seems to stop it... Who will stand in its way? Who will correct the false conceptions of our contemporaries?
-Is the falsehood progressing?
-But it is everywhere! Can't you see it? The noble art of persuasion is being prostituted!
-I read the newspapers, which are more concerned with partisan politics than with truth. Social networks are, in fact, full of official and changing truths.
-One would be hard pressed to identify even a residue of objective thought! Who cares about truth, beauty.... of the general interest!
-What do you want from me?
-You have been given a reputation as a professional listener, trained in the art of persuasion. I would like you to help me forge an objective definition of truth, the better to combat sophistry.
Is there an objective reality?
Protagoras has not taken his eyes off Plato. He opines, without excess, in the face of a discourse that is certainly excessive, but which is not devoid of logic or sincerity.
-Could you clarify what exactly you mean by a "sophistical conception of truth"?
-But, ... (Plato hesitates for a moment at the magnitude of the task). Let's start at the beginning: these sophists get paid! Publicists, communication consultants, copywriters, ... They get paid! You heard me, getting paid! They chase the wealthy to sell their services. Isn't this prostitution of knowledge odious to you?
-Do you associate with any of these sophists, Plato?
-I can't give a lecture without them pestering me with questions about my so-called 'absolutist' conception of truth!
-If I may ask, Plato, how do you ensure your livelihood?
-I come from one of the oldest families in the North East. I don't have to worry about my livelihood. My business is ideas.
-Are these 'sophists', as a rule, younger than you?
-So most of them, unlike you, have no wealth?
-This can be assumed.
-Shouldn't everyone earn their keep?
-I don't disagree. What are you getting at? I don't blame them for earning their "pittance", as you say. But of prostituting their knowledge!
-Is it not natural that everyone should make their own bread using their own skills, rather than those of their neighbours?
-The way to do things differently!
-But then, if your sophists do indeed possess knowledge, as you point out, is it any wonder that they offer the service of it?
-Sophism! It is not the fact of ensuring their subsistence that I reproach them. It's that they sell their technique to clients who don't hesitate to use it to tell lies!
-Is my mother accountable for my use of the language she taught me?
Plato, taken aback:
-What are you talking about your mother?! Of course she is not responsible for your use of the language she taught you! - that you make of the language she taught you!
-Will we hold the sophist accountable for the uses made of the technique he teaches? On the same grounds, Plato?
As Plato pauses, Protagoras contemplates his beautiful and noble face. Plato seems to gain in intellectual concentration what he has lost in nervousness. Protagoras resumes:
-With your permission, Plato, I propose to get to the heart of the matter: the strange conception of truth that these sophists have of themselves.
Man is the measure of all things
-What is the Sophistic concept of truth?
Plato thought for a moment, then said:
-One of them, whose name escapes me, had this horrible phrase " Man is the measure of all things, for those that are, of their existence, for those that are not, of their non-existence. " This sums up the whole affair, and reveals the appalling relativism of sophistry, this unveiling of the beautiful art of persuasion!
-How do you interpret this sentence?
-Isn't it clear? Nothing exists without the endorsement of an individual judgement. Man decides on the existence of all things - literally, he decrees the existence! - and the non-existence of what he does not like. What a dreadful hybristic buffoonery!
-In these terms, this sentence seems indeed comical.
-So we are in agreement!
-However, Plato, is it not possible to interpret this sentence in another, more... measured way?
-The terms are clear! Are you a relativist, Protagoras?
The problem of relativism
-Well - this is just a hypothesis - what do you think of this observation: man, it is said, is the measure of all things.
-Measure, not author.
-I don't follow you.
-If the author of this sentence wished to express a thesis as perfectly relativistic as you suppose, why use the word measure - who seems in some way secondary to a pre-existing reality - and not a word like 'author', 'creator', or even 'demiurge'? Would one say of a demiurge that he is the 'measure' of the world, or that he is its creator?
-Again, I cannot hear you. You remind me of those ratiocinators mocked by Aristophanes in the Clouds ! Besides, don't you see that the sentence continues "Man is the measure of all things, for those who are, of their existence, ... " One could not better express the idea that man - the individual! - decides to the existence of things, not only of their measure !
The two components of reality
-This notwithstanding, the word measure is primary, both in form and in substance.
-Well, if I say "Man is the measure of all things, for those that are, of their existence, ...", I mean that for existing things, man is the measure. The measure, not the authorthe decision-maker, the inventor. To tell the truth, I see only a humble surveyor in this sentence, Plato, no demiurge.
-I understand and respect your logic, because it is based on objective elements. But you do not convince me. It all seems to me to be a fog of sophistry!
At no time did Protagoras stop staring at his interlocutor's face. The art of persuasion is a strange dynamic, he thinks. He was interested in the intellectual mechanism that was being revealed before him, a fragile and peculiar interweaving of reason and emotion.
Straightening up, Plato:
-Well, my dear Protagoras, it is my turn to ask you a question.
-Here I am, facing you. Would you say that my existence, Plato, depends on your judgement? That before I entered your office I did not exist, and that I will cease to be as soon as I leave the atrium of this imposing building?
-I certainly wouldn't venture to support such a burlesque thesis!
The objective component
-Which shows you, my dear Protagoras, that you are in no way the measure of my existence. Your art of persuasion does not impress me. My existence, an objective fact, escapes your judgment entirely. This claim to be the "measure" of a reality that we do not master is nothing but a vulgar sophism! Reality is not arbitrary !
In satisfaction, Plato silently smoothes his beard. He thinks of the intrinsic superiority of his being, which can in no way depend on the judgment of an inferior creature.
-Your 'however' is putting my nerves to the test, Protagoras. What sense does it make to concede the argument, if you are to retract it in the moment?
-I am not retracting anything. I am just making a clarification.
-Because I have to!
-Even if I agree with your enlightening demonstration, the term existence remains polysemous.
-I don't see how existence is polysemous. What is exists, what is not, does not exist. Read Parmenides again!
-Remember when you came into this office. I let you choose to sit with your back to the sun or face it.
-You choose to leave the celestial flame behind you.
-Because I can't stand the sun in my eyes!
The subjective component
-Would you describe this discomfort as real?
-No doubt about it: my eyes get irritated, red, itchy, then I cry!
Protagoras pauses; then :
-It will not have escaped you that I am facing the sun.
-Perhaps your eyes are less sensitive than mine!
-But I guess, Protagoras, that a "however" is looming on the horizon of your soothing speech!
-The "however" you have just expressed, by the observation that the blaze of the sun on the horizon blinds you, whereas it is indifferent to me.
-Nevertheless, my discomfort is real, it exists!
-My lack of any discomfort is just as real; in my case, this discomfort does not exist!
-Oh, please, Protagoras, don't tell me that you equate sensation with science! Sensation is not science!
-Have I made such a claim? Is it not important, when we question a thesis, not to sew on to it a scope that is not its own? "Sensation is science" seems to me to be a very silly idea indeed!
-Didn't you just say...?
-That your discomfort is real and my lack of discomfort is no less real. Will we invent disagreements?
-We are sophists and relativists! What a catastrophe! It was well worth coming to consult the "Trump Tower philosopher", if it was to add to the world's misery!
-Is there not a reality which, beyond your embarrassment and my lack of embarrassment, somehow transcends them? A truth that imposes itself, independently of you and me?
Sunshine in the eyes
-For my part, I consider that it is in the secret of my soul that I am best able to contemplate the truth of things. Indeed, I hold that my soul, before uniting with my body, was bathed in the world of essences and that by concentrating the powers of my mind, it is up to me to reconstruct the memory of it.
-Isn't it a kind of paradox, Plato, to seek in your subjectivity the essence of that truth of which you challenge everyone to be the measure?
-What do you propose?
-But, of course! The sun! The sun is; and it doesn't care how much it bothers us!
-But then... Where is the truth in the end, Protagoras?
-You are right: it is time to summarise our exchange. Shall I risk it?
- Please feel free to correct me. We have shown that, in the search for truth, two theses must be rejected. The first is the relativistic thesis, according to which there are only individual truths, and nothing beyond the judgments and opinions of each individual. This thesis, which we could call the individual as the living law of the universe, is false and untenable in practice. Do we agree?
-Entirely! This is the interpretation I was proposing of the sophist maxim. Interpreted in this way, this maxim is as false as it gets!
-Similarly, we reject the objectivist thesis that truth is one, whole, intangible and external to man. We have shown, with the example of the sun, that this claim of a dehumanised universe is as excessive as the previous one. Do you still agree?
-Your illustration of the sun forces me to acknowledge the individual component of truth. However - and here I am talking like you! - we lack a general definition of truth!
-This is a question I have often asked myself, Plato. What is truth? I confess that I am unable to answer it.
-How? We should be satisfied with a barely sketched definition, and only by rejecting what it is not? What a strange conception of the art of persuasion!
Plato and Protagoras agree to meet again.
Cogito Library, 2023. Resources marked 'Cogito Library' may be freely taken, quoted, copied, even in their entirety, on the sole condition that a hyperlink to the page of the borrowed resource is included.